An Irish Anglers World

John Higgins, Fly Fisherman, Co. Kildare


John Higgins Trout Angling Guide

A sea angler from birth, I took up fly fishing in the mid nineties as catches declined on the east coast due to commercial pressure on fish stocks. It seemed a good idea back then to use my free time more productively, and I had always fancied the idea of catching Sea Trout on the fly. The Rivers Vartry, Avoca, and Slaney were close by, and all had decent runs of Sea Trout. The decision proved correct and a new world was opened up to me. The Slaney in particular has been kind, providing many an evenings’ entertainment with fish up to a pound and a half. Not big by Welsh standards, but great fun and spectacularly hard fighting. The Kill Devil Spider being the local fly is a must, combined with a Bloody Butcher and worked down the runs close to the trees at night, magic.

Living in Wicklow and blessed with quality wild Trout fishing along the Avonmore and Aughrim rivers and on the Vartry Reservoirs, the idea of fishing other waters never really crossed my mind. The River Liffey had been considered but never acted upon. Surprising really given that it rises in a bog above the Sally Gap on the flanks of Kippure, flowing down past Manor Kilbride into Blessington Lakes, and then on out westward over the plains of Kildare to transform into a chalk stream of some note. My excuse is that I had enough going on in my life with work and family commitments, while the angling side was well catered for and interesting enough. However the penny finally dropped and with the idea of expanding the angling experience firmly rooted, the Liffey was earmarked as a definite to cast a line over during the coming 2009 season.

River Liffey

With that in mind a bit of research was undertaken and one name cropped up more than most, Newbridge, Co. Kildare based angling guide John Higgins. “If you are new to the Liffey give John Higgins a call, he will see you right”. So I did, and on a late November morning last year we met in a car park adjacent to the river and walked the banks, discussing the previous season, his guiding experience, the North Kildare Anglers Association, and other related topics. It became apparent that this man was passionate to the nth degree about wild Brown Trout angling and in particular the River Liffey. That day I was driven to and shown various access points between Clane and Kilcullen, while being given an overview of the quality of angling backed up by a synopsis of the methods required to be successful. In the early afternoon we went our separate ways with an arrangement to meet early in the 2009 season marked down in the diary. John would tie me a selection of flies suitable for the river and we would fish the town park stretch and an area close to the village of Athgarvan.

John Higgins

A publican by trade, John became a full time professional guide three years ago after many years occasionally offering his services to foreign tourists and visiting businessmen. The bulk of his business emanates from Spain; John is fluent in the language, and referrals (mainly businessmen) from local hotels. Repeat business is a feature, testament to the quality of the service and the angling on offer. The basic package priced at €180.00 covers a day starting at 09.00am and ending at 17.30pm. A substantial lunch is provided along with the necessary flies all tied by John. Half days from 09.00am – 13.00pm are catered for, and by arrangement collections from Dublin Airport and city hotels, which are priced accordingly. By continental standards these rates are very competitive. In return the client gets the full attention of a current Irish International, a member of the Irish fly fishing team for the fourth year out of five, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Liffey and its’ Trout.

The 2nd of April 2009 was warm and bright with a nice breeze blowing from the south. We met at the appointed time in “The Gables” car park off the Athgarvan road. “Too bright for fishing”, John noted, “but we will give it a go”. John fishes the river practically every day, stealing an hour here and there between school runs and other family commitments. A mixture of fun, passion, and homework, it is obvious that he is competitive and professional, with this level of dedication needed to keep him at the top of his game. Fishing dry, I was provided with a 9’ weight 4 Sage rod and reel combination loaded with a forward taper line. As promised I was presented with a selection of beautifully tied flies suitable for the river, which for the rest of the day I was not allowed use. “They’re yours for another day, I’ll see you right”, was the generous command, and off we went.

River Liffey, Newbridge, The Strand

Fording the river we walked upstream to a stretch called “The Strand”, a mixture of glide and riffle with a fairly even depth averaging 2.5 – 3 feet. “You could wade from here to Athgarvan without ever leaving the river”. Fishing a dry dark olive with a white post, I was instructed to work a shallow run making sure the fly “travels at the same speed as the suds”. If the fly started to skate I was gently reprimanded and made quickly correct the fault. Trout rose to the fly and I duly missed them, “fastest Trout in Leinster”, came the retort echoed by the regular command of “strike”, usually when I lost sight of the fly. After about half an hour working up the run it all came together and I hooked my first Liffey Trout, butter yellow and beautifully spotted. Over the next two hours another five followed with the biggest touching 30cms. Great fun on the light tackle, but run of the mill compared to what can be encountered.

On that day John stalked a fish holding station in a gut close to some over hanging branches. The Trout was close to a pound and a half and broke John on the strike, an action which resulted in a string of expletives and rod thrashing quite comical in the circumstances. On a subsequent visit enquiring after the fish I was told categorically, “sure I got him a week later. He’s back under the bush now keeping his head down”. That day and a later visit showed beyond doubt the skills that John Higgins has developed over thirty years of fly fishing, from his ability to match the hatch to the careful way that he presents the fly to a feeding Trout.

Brace of Liffey Trout

Since the initial visit I have been back twice, once more with John and also on my own, where needless to say John appeared working his way down a run in the town park stretch. It pleased me to say that I had connected with ten Trout in that same run not a half an hour earlier, while fishing a team of wet flies. He congratulated me on my success while giving a few pointers on leader designs, coupled with flies, methods to use, and their applications over the course of the season.

Again the same old adage comes to mind, no matter how competent we are as anglers, when visiting an area for the first time local knowledge will always tip the balance in favour of success. To hire a professional guide even for one day is money well spent as it will repay in spades. The tricks and nuances relating to an area can take a lifetime to learn, far better to be tapping into that memory bank rather than floundering around in the dark.

The Liffey in County Kildare is a chalk stream one hour from O’Connell Street, and relative to its location very lightly fished. Trout stocks are considerable with the average weight being 8.oz, while one in six could clear a pound. It has all the usual hatches associated with a rich river. On the spring days that I fished dark olives were hatching, with latterly blue winged olives and tiny black reed smuts. John Higgins was a joy to fish with, and there is no question that I came away a better angler for being in his company. Not only do I have the basics required to fish the Liffey successfully, but also the basis of skills which can be honed and applied to more familiar waters in the future.

Ashley Hayden © April 2009